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A Gap In Learning That Won't Go Away

STEVEN GOODE

July 15, 2009

The persistent achievement gap between black and white students in reading and math in Connecticut remains greater than the national average and is among the widest in the nation, according to a federal report released Tuesday.

In fourth-grade math, Connecticut's gap of 32 points was larger than the national average of 26 points. Illinois, Nebraska and Washington, D.C., also exceeded the national average. Tests were graded on a 500-point scale.

Connecticut also had one of the widest gaps in eighth-grade math, 38 points, and fourth-grade reading, 34 points, according to the report from the U.S. Department of Education. Other states with large gaps include Arkansas, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

The test score gap between minority and white students is considered one of the most frustrating problems in public education. Experts say such gaps stem from entrenched factors, often due to poverty, that hinder learning.

In Connecticut, the gap doesn't appear to have closed or widened, said Tom Murphy, spokesman for the state Department of Education, who added that the state is still among the best in the nation in educational achievement overall. Connecticut has launched programs to help close the gap between blacks and whites and children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, he said.

"Is the job done? No. We have some serious issues," he said.

Murphy said the report showed some improvements at the fourth-grade reading level, which means that early childhood intervention and anti-poverty programs are working, but the achievement gap at the eighth-grade reading level in Connecticut and across the nation was "disturbing."

"Reading-skill development comes early. If a student isn't strong in that area by the eighth grade, they are going to face further difficulty in their high school years," Murphy said.

Alex Johnston, CEO of the New Haven-based school reform advocacy group ConnCan, said the report raises troubling questions. "When you look at the data based on income, we have the worst achievement gap in the country and now this report shows we are among the worst in the country [between black and white students] Johnston said. "We really have to ask ourselves what we intend to do about it."

Johnston said his group advocates overhauling teacher certification, using data to follow individual students through their educational careers to see what programs are and aren't working and ensuring that high-performing charter schools can proliferate.

"There's no reason why African American kids in Connecticut should be falling behind states in the South, where education opportunities for minorities have been the weakest historically," Johnston said.

Nationally, the report delivered some good news. Reading and math scores are improving for black students across the country, but because white students also improved, the disparity between blacks and whites has lessened only slightly.

Closing the achievement gap was a central element of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which holds schools accountable for progress among every group of kids including minorities, those who have disabilities and those who are learning English.

The gap between black and white students shrank by 2 points after 2003, when accountability measures under No Child Left Behind took effect.

Experts say more black children live in poverty, which is linked to an array of problems low birth weight, exposure to lead poisoning, hunger, too much TV-watching, too little talking and reading at home, less involvement by parents and frequent school transfers.

The gap exists even before kids start school. But schools don't mitigate the problem, said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a children's advocacy group.

"African American students are less likely than their white counterparts to be taught by teachers who know their subject matter," Haycock said.

"They are less likely to be exposed to a rich and challenging curriculum," she said. "And the schools that educate them typically receive less state and local funding than the ones serving mainly white students."

The implications of the disparity reach far beyond school walls. Minority students also are much more likely to drop out of high school half of minorities drop out, compared with about 30 percent of students overall. The future is bleak for dropouts; they are the only segment of the work force whose income levels shrank over the past 30 years, according to the children's advocacy group America's Promise Alliance.

A huge percentage of minority students lack the simple skills they need to function in society, said Hugh Price, professor at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School and a former president of the Urban League.

Only about half of black and Hispanic fourth-graders perform at or above "basic" in reading on the tests used in the study, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Price noted.

An Associated Press report was included in this story.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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